What Matters Next: Creativity is Just Connecting Things

It’s cliche to look to Steve Jobs for inspiration in the tech and investing worlds. This inspiration typically shows up in turtleneck-rich wardrobes, unconfirmed fealty to design, and, way too often, being cruel to subordinates. This has made my own predilection to draw lessons from Jobs increasingly difficult to justify, as I myself tune out 95% of Jobs references.

That doesn’t mean Steve wasn’t right about a lot of things.

There’s an amazing, very long Wired interview from early 1996, about a year before Apple purchased his company NeXT, that he gave to my friend Gary Wolf — and it’s the most purely concentrated rightness about business and innovation I think Steve ever spoke. There’s loads of good stuff to glean, but the best part is this: “Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while.”

“Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while.”

This is the essence of all innovation, though it’s deceptively simple. Those 5 words, “creativity is just connecting things,” contain multitudes. Technologies connecting to social movements. Industries converging. Bringing together disparate groups into a more powerful whole. Connecting the right message to the right medium. This is what great innovators have done for all time.

And it’s what early-stage investors are called on to do themselves — not to make those connections directly, but to recognize when a connection with potential has been made by the right entrepreneurial team. Making an investment decision on an early stage startup is a form of creativity — it’s a step toward helping to bring about a change in the world that you can envision taking hold two to five years in the future. And, perhaps even more so than what Steve was talking about back then, this is a creativity purely of making connections.

At Matter, that’s usually about connecting top-down trends in the world to a bottom-up perspective about a person with needs in a particular context to an inspired founding team to our mission to Change Media for Good. Connect, connect, connect. For obvious reasons, this process is fraught with peril, and for good reason. Lots of trends with tremendous momentum suddenly fall off the map, at least for awhile (think of the motion control trend that the Nintendo Wii and Microsoft Kinect suggested would overtake entertainment — and still might). A lot of trends that look like they’ll never take off for years suddenly accelerate in a way that it’s impossible to catch up (a lot of cable and satellite companies are now scrambling to win over cord-cutters and cord-nevers they didn’t believe existed even four years ago). Stuff that crashed 25 years ago can suddenly come back as the hottest thing going (VR, anyone?).

To provide a snapshot of our thinking process at Matter, I wanted to start a rotating series discussing trends in our space that have at least the partial attention of our investment team as we assemble our forthcoming classes. They’re spaces we’re watching for connections to our mission and to people in the world with unmet needs. We don’t know how they will connect or what the best ventures are. But they’re things that have us excited right now.

The following doesn’t constitute anything even close to resembling our current comprehensive investment hypotheses. It might cover a heck of a lot of my idle musings in the kitchen over the last couple of weeks.

Find the magic in native apps for emerging, unhyped platforms.

It’s been almost a year since Apple launched its watch, and about six months since it introduced the new AppleTV supporting app development. Android devices in the same class are selling in large numbers, as well. It’s a lot of hardware to date with just a little software innovation. They don’t have the hype of VR, but they actually have way more traction. Just as iPhone and Android apps took a giant leap in quality and ambition as developers really began to understand what smartphones could and should do, we hope to see the same in smartwatches and AppleTV apps. Smartwatches aren’t going to be poor fitness trackers and calendar trackers forever. Smart set-top boxes aren’t just going to be for casual games and over-the-top TV delivery. We’re curious to see what they will be for (and to talk to the people figuring it out!).

Create games that drive meaningful change for people and the world.

Gamification is a dreadful word that has been used to describe a trend of tricking people into getting addicted to apps through digital badges and rewards, much as they would in video games. While there’s a slide on gamification in 90% of all PowerPoint decks, these efforts have mostly failed to move the needle — largely because they all play the same game: “Score the most points!” There are a lot more games than Monopoly out there. We’re excited to see people who know games best — those who play them and have developed them for entertainment — try their hand at using the game mechanics in which they are experts to tackle areas where traditional approaches are lacking, such as personal and professional improvement, social change, and yes, the media business. To coin a word that none us has ever nor will ever use, let’s productivify games. It should be more interesting than gamifying productivity, at the very least.

Put people in control where context meets conversation.

Quartz’s app delivers the latest news via chatbot

I first wrote about contextual computing three years ago. Increasing knowledge of people’s beliefs, interests, friends, and behaviors can lead to radically personalized technology. As often happens with such pieces, very little has happened since I did that. What has happened instead is that conversational computing, in the form of millions of AI chat apps, has exploded. As fun as those tools can be, they are much, much more powerful if they can pull a snapshot of current context: am I busy? Am I stressed? Am I walking to get somewhere or to blow off steam? I’m with five people, what should we do together — not any group of our size, but us in particular? We’re getting very close to ready for this at the intersection of these two long-term tech trends, which will likely leverage new hardware categories (especially wearables). I can’t wait.

Create content across devices for consumption across devices.

We’re almost nine years into the smartphone revolution, and six into the modern tablet era. And, with few exceptions, those are still largely platforms for consuming content, not making it. Short-form photography or videography, based on in-the-moment spontaneity, a la Instagram and Snapchat, remains the exception, not the rule. Most professional content creation still happens on the PC. But, quietly, all the new device types we’ve accumulated have together formed a new approach to UI that spans across them. The last time such a transition in fundamental paradigm for creativity hit, we got the desktop publishing industry. What’s going to be possible when we get serious about professional production on non-PC devices? How can wearables, phones, and tablets be used together to create something fundamentally new?

Unlock the possibilities of open(ish) infotainment platforms in vehicles.

The signs are everywhere: making a new mobile app these days is a great way to get no users. The statistics are staggeringly bad. But as one door closes, new windows inevitably open. And the vast majority of new cars on the road these days support Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, or both. The most basic in-vehicle experiences — music, navigation, podcasts — have been served to one degree or another. That simply means there is tons of room to figure out what else we would do if every car’s infotainment console had the power and interactivity of a tablet. Consumer adoption has been slow, but that is going to change in the next two to three years as a greater and greater proportion of cars on the road come with these platforms available by default. The opportunity to make those experiences personal, context-sensitive, and transformative is right in front of us. We want to talk with the teams doing the most interesting work in the space — as it’s only a matter of time before submissions open up more fully on both platforms.

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I could go on, but that’s what’s top of mind right now. I’d love to get into conversations with anyone pushing these boundaries and hear what’s popping in media for you. We’ll be back in about a month with thoughts from another member of our team!